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President urges student-led culture shift in e-mail

After a series of incidents that have saddled Duke with negative publicity, President Richard Brodhead sent an e-mail Monday urging undergraduates to “visualize a change.”

The letter represents Brodhead’s first public attempt to address these issues with the student body following the recent series of campus controversies.

“To the extent that there are features of student culture that strike you as less than ideal, I urge you to face up to them, speak openly about them, and have the courage to visualize a change,” the letter reads. “I myself and the members of my administration will cooperate with you fully. But we won’t succeed in making Duke the best that it could be unless you make that your personal project, as you shape your own conduct and your collective life.”

Brodhead e-mails the student body infrequently, though he has provided multiple financial updates since the economic downturn and sent several messages during the 2006 lacrosse case, when three team members were falsely accused of raping an exotic dancer at an off-campus party. In an interview Monday night, Brodhead said he was prompted to write the letter by the sequence of events that he feels falsely portray campus culture.

“This has been a Fall with a lot of odd events catching the public eye and events that are really so different from the Duke that we ourselves experience every day,” Brodhead said.

Allegations that former Duke College Republican Chair Justin Robinette, a senior, was impeached from his position because he is gay have attracted outside attention since he first made the charges in the Spring. Then, reporters from major news agencies came to campus in October after a detailed Powerpoint presentation of a Duke alumna’s sexual encounters went viral. In November, crude fraternity e-mails sent to social listservs gained media attention from agencies such as The Huffington Post and after an anonymous student posted the messages as fliers throughout campus. And most recently, students voiced strong opinions regarding the cancellation of Tailgate, which was prompted by the discovery of an unconscious minor in a Porta Potty during the Nov. 6 Tailgate.

“Cartoonish images of gender relations have created offense and highlighted persistent discomforts,” Brodhead wrote. “Like every other college in America, we have too much drinking on this campus. We’ve had our eyes opened to the serious costs of apparently harmless fun. As you know better than anyone, these episodes can create a wildly distorted image of Duke.”

Brodhead opened the e-mail by recalling a 1984 letter to students by then-President Terry Sanford. Signed “Uncle Terry,” as he was informally known, Sanford urged students to change the Cameron Crazies’ reputation of “crudeness, profanity and cheapness” and refrain from yelling profanities at men’s basketball games.

Brodhead said soon after Sanford’s letter, students began to behave more appropriately at sporting events. He added that he believes his letter conveys a similar message to undergraduates in encouraging them to rethink common campus practices, noting that change must come from students.

“No administration has ever changed the student culture, but students have changed their own culture,” he said in the interview.

Duke Student Government President Mike Lefevre, a senior, said he was “thrilled” that Brodhead sent the letter, noting that the president had told him in a meeting Friday he was working on a message to students. Lefevre added that he had encouraged Brodhead to start “bringing his voice closer” to the student body.

“It had been a long time since the students heard from the President,” Lefevre said. “This is a community that cares about itself, that builds on individual strengths, and I think he did a great job of [conveying] that without getting into the details of any of [the events].”

To address some of the same events that prompted Brodhead’s e-mail, DSG is holding a three-day summit on gender relations, the first of which took place last night. Senior Michelle Sohn, DSG liaison for gender issues, said the forum was successful, adding that she was very pleased with Brodhead’s letter.

“It’s really laudable that he did that, and hopefully it’s not the only thing he’ll do,” said Sohn, who is also a member of The Chronicle’s Editorial Board. “Perhaps this is the start of a larger trend of him addressing the student body on problematic issues more and more.”

Sophomore Ellie Bullard said she believes Duke is still being evaluated in light of the lacrosse scandal. As a result, Bullard said she thinks “people love to hate Duke,” even though it the University is not the only college campus home to controversy.

“I wasn’t here when Duke had the lacrosse scandal, but I feel like ever since that happened things have spiraled out of control,” she said.

Several students felt Brodhead did not give any concrete solutions to campus problems and instead only reiterated already-known issues.

“I’m glad he acknowledged all of the things that have been going on in terms of gender relations,” said sophomore Andrea Alonso. “I don’t think he had a clear message to the student population. It’s kind of like, ‘What are we supposed to do now?’”


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